Monday, December 01, 2014

Interactions & Negotiations

The law here in Illinois says that as a cyclist I “must obey the same traffic laws, signs and signals that apply to motorists.” Even though I’m breaking the law, I frequently use the Idaho Stop; I roll through stop signs and often proceed through red lights after stopping. yet, I’m not a risk taker. Most cyclists aren't. Every time I get on my bike, I intend to return home safely. I’m not generally a scofflaw.

So, why do I (as a cyclist) frequently execute Idaho stops, given that they are not legal in Illinois? It’s really pretty simple. Every time I encounter a car, we have a bike/car interaction. (Bike/bike and bike/pedestrian interactions are also common, but are generally much less risky than those which involve cars.) The more I've considered this, the more it’s become apparent to me that every interaction between two parties (driver, cyclist, pedestrian) implies that a negotiation takes place.

A failed negotiation is a problem. The law attempts to very broadly short-circuit the need for negotiations, but does so in an imperfect fashion. Consider a four-way stop. I arrive at the intersection on my bike and want to continue straight. A car arrives after me from the right and wants to turn right. The law says I have the right-of-way, since I arrived at the intersection first. We have an interaction, and thus, a negotiation.

Strictly interpreted, the law specifies the outcome of that negotiation. I go, then the car goes. However, if we follow the law in the strict sense, and I proceed through the intersection, all I do is open myself up for another interaction and negotiation after both I and the driver have left the intersection, because the car is going to pass me, probably within the next block. That interaction is also governed by law here in Illinois (the three-foot rule). That rule is new (so isn't widely practiced yet), and it’s squishier than, say, the right-of-way rule at the intersection. Judging a three foot distance is more difficult than telling if a car has come to a complete stop. To complicate matters further, as the cyclist being overtaken, I’m at a distinct disadvantage in the negotiation. The driver holds most of the cards. I can move over and take the lane, but since I can’t see the driver, I can’t really tell what effect that maneuver has on him. Is he still going to try and pass me? Have I simply pissed him off? Have I confused him? If I don’t take the lane, am I opening myself up to getting doored? So, let’s back up to the original interaction at the intersection. Instead of using the default negotiation (the “contract” specified by the law?) It seems clear to me that I should yield my right-of-way to the driver to avoid the potentially more problematic future interaction.

Now, let’s consider another situation. I arrive at a stop light with a “no right on red” sign (quite common here in the Chicago area), and a car arrives after me, wanting to turn right. Furthermore, let’s assume nobody is coming from either direction on the cross street (a wasted green light). Should I wait for the light to change? In my mind, no. Just as in the first example, by proceeding through the red light, I avoid the possibility of a future interaction (me going straight, the driver turning) in which I am at a negotiating disadvantage. The driver might not have seen me, or might assume she can complete the turn before I get in her way.

To conclude, I try to ride in a way I feel minimizes interactions (especially with cars), and thus reduces the need to enter into negotiations. Reducing the number of negotiations reduces the chance of a negative result.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

StVZO lights

Here in the US of A, we apparently have no standards at the state or federal levels regarding bike light beam shape. Consequently, the only common choices available from any retailer (from Wal-Mart to specialty bike shops) are basically insanely powerful flashlights (we are, if nothing else, a bigger-is-better society) which attach to various parts of your bike or body. They are powerful enough, that I use a cheapo light which was retired from bike duty a couple years ago as a flashlight in my workshop. I suppose symmetric beam patterns are fine if you ride off-road, but they are not great when you ride on the road. One, such lights waste a lot of the light they generate. Light goes up and to the sides just as effectively as it goes down and to the front. Two, a good chunk of the light which doesn't illuminate your path serves mostly to blind oncoming bikes, cars and pedestrians. Even off-road, I have to question the utility of over-illuminating everything other than your path.
Over in Germany they do have a bike equipment standard, StVZO. I don't know what all the details are (it applies to other bike factors besides lighting), but it at least legislates headlight beam pattern. This is a good thing. More of the light generated goes where you need it -- on the road -- and much less of it goes where you don't. Consequently, the lights themselves don't need to generate as much raw output. You can get by with a lower power light which will last longer between charges or battery replacement.
I use a Philips SafeRide on my commuter, but there's nothing special about it. (I like it, but my intent here isn't to promote a specific light.) There are plenty of options available. In fact, if you search eBay for "StVZO" you will see lots of battery powered lights which advertise StVZO compliance. They don't seem to be any more expensive than their super powered flashlight brethren. Many are produced in Asia (no great surprise there), which probably helps keep costs down.
If you're looking for a new bike light, I think you should consider one with an StVZO-compliant beam. If you prefer to shop locally, ask your LBS what they can get their hands on. If their only option is to sell you what they can get from their distributors, ask them to lean on those folks. If that doesn't produce results, vote with your wallet and find something online.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Three things all cyclists and motorists should do

I firmly believe that bikes are fundamentally different modes of transportation than driving or walking. I think it's unfortunate that bikes are, for the most part, treated by the law as "little cars." I recognize that this treatment has a long history. Given the amount of time which has passed since bikes were last the dominant conveyance on our streets, it's not surprising that streets were largely designed with cars in mind. Still, from my perspective, there are at least a few important ways that moving around by bike is much different than moving around in a car or truck:

  1. Cyclists can safely get much closer to intersections (and see much better around corners) before committing to stop or go.
  2. When cyclists put themselves in any sort of traffic situation, they are completely unprotected. For that reason alone, they will (if they have their thinking caps on) be much more cautious about risking an incident involving a car, bike or pedestrian.
Accordingly, I have no problem with people rolling through four-way stops or proceeding through a red light after stopping (even cars, assuming they are doing it right, but that's a whole 'nuther kettle of fish). Still, those things don't remove your obligation from being a good citizen on the road. Most of my riding is done in an urban environment, which colors my view of how things work. I realize that in lower density suburban and rural areas things may work differently. That said, I think the entire system would work much better if cyclists and motorists all considered these three points.
  1. Never deny someone else their right-of-way. If you come to a four-way stop and someone else has already gotten there, that person (driver, pedestrian, cyclist) has the right-of-way. It's their choice to yield it or not, not yours. Don't take it from them.
  2. Always signal your intentions. Many people seem to think that turn signals are optional. They are not. Ignoring the codified laws (which seem not to be enforced anyway), signaling your intention to turn, change lanes, or stop reduces confusion, and thus the risk of an incident.
  3. Never accelerate to make a yellow light for which you can stop. No matter how experienced or lucky you are, eventually your experience will fail you and your luck will run out. You will run a red light, and collide with someone going the other way.
Note that I used the absolute words "never" and "always" above. I realize people make mistakes, and that perfection is impossible. Still, it should be a goal. Some days, I try and count the number of mistakes on my commute. I think it's a useful exercise. If you're honest about it, it might help you see your actions as they appear to other people.

There will be times when you fail to notice a light changing until it's too late to stop. As a cyclist, I know when I'm looking to see what hazards await me, I am much more finely tuned to motor vehicles. That means I will sometimes fail to see a pedestrian. That's a mistake. I need to get better at seeing everyone, not just the people who can do me the most harm. I also admit to not being the best person when it comes to signaling turns or stops when riding my bike. I will try to to better at that. For people in cars, you have no excuse. Your stop lights better work. If you fail to engage your turn signal (or, perhaps worse, set it, then change your mind and go straight), that's your fault, not mine.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Music of the city

This is a long-delayed post. I commute into the Chicago Loop from Evanston on a regular basis. My normal inbound route includes Wells south of the Chicago River. Most of the time the sound is typical city stuff: cars zipping by, horns honking, or the often deafening sound of a CTA train rolling overhead. Once though, a slow-moving CTA train tapped out the beat to Glenn Miller's In the Mood. I thought it was cool.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vintage Bike Classifieds - A Great Vintage

If you're reading this blog, you're probably a bit like me, buying and selling bikes and bike parts, out there looking for the next good deal. I'm into vintage bikes. It seems I always have one under construction. I just finished off a Trek 520 fixed gear commuter. My next project is a Jim Redcay frame.

Ebay is clearly the biggest marketplace for vintage bike parts, but the fees for sellers keep going up, and if you're a buyer, you worry about scams, shill bidding and other nefarious practices. It's enough to drive you crazy at times. Forum sites like and the Paceline have classified forums, but they are difficult to search effectively, and you nothing really expires. Craigslist is another alternative, but it's really only effective locally, and is overrun with scams.

There hasn't been a really dedicated place for vintage bike nuts to buy and sell stuff until now. Tom Jordan, a regular contributor to Classic Rendezvous, recently fired up A Great Vintage, a classified website focused exclusively on vintage bikes and bike parts. "Vintage" is defined as any bikes or parts from roughly 1990 or before.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fixed Gear - but not Hipster Fixie

I finished my first fixed gear build last week, a converted Trek 520:

I plan on using this as my commuter. I had never ridden a fixed gear bike before. I've now got three rides and one Arte Johnson manuever under my belt. The first ride was with the pair of SunTour Cyclone pedals in the above picture. Before the second ride I swapped those out for one of my Look sets. I was nearly home from work on my third ride (second commute) when I tipped over trying to start after a green light.

Things I like:
  • Learning a new skill
  • Complete "Silence of the Bike"
  • The extra workout your legs get
  • No hunting for the "perfect" gear that is never there
  • Instant preparation for those little "insults" that pass for hills here in Chicago
So far the only obvious downside is the tip-over, but I'm sure that problem will clear up as I improve my skills at hitting that moving target with my cleat.

  • Trek 520 frame with original Dia-Compe cantis (Kool-Stop Salmon pads)
  • Some no-name wheels from Ebay (Roval?) shod with Panaracer Pasela PT 700x32 tires and covered with SKS Chromoplastic 700x45 fenders
  • Sugino Mighty Competition Pista crank (151BCD) w/ 47T Sugino chainring
  • ProType bottom bracket
  • Miche 16T track cog with carrier, no-name lockring I had mixed in with a bunch of bottom bracket lock rings
  • SRAM PC-1 chain
  • Nitto bar, Specialized stem, Shimano BL-400 levers, Selle Italia Flite saddle and no-name seatpost I saved from a previous Trek I used to own
The "plush" tires and fenders mark this build as something different than the typical hipster fixies you see around.

Aside from the time it took to assemble the parts, the chain was the only real "adventure." a KMC K710SL chain was recommended on the single-speed forum at, so I bought one, not paying any attention to its length. Unfortunately, it only comes in one length - 100 links. With my long chainstays and rather large chainring, that didn't cut it.

I looked at the QBP catalog and saw that the K710SL purportedly came in a 112-link length, so I ordered one from my LBS. No such luck. 100 links... I finally just bought the PC-1 from my LBS.

I really like the way it rides, though that has nothing to do with the fixed gear aspects of the bike. The longer chainstays and 32mm tires make this thing float over all the little bumps in the streets. (The 520 was a touring bike that originally came with 27-inch wheels, so the chainstays are pretty long.)

I have my eye set on a 60-on-my-60th ride in late November. Before that time, I need to tweak the gearing a bit. The 47x16 setup is a bit too high (2.94:1 ratio), certainly for all the starting and stopping I do when commuting. I'll initially see if I can get away with a 17T cog (2.76:1). If that's not enough, I'll scrounge up a 46T chainring (46x17 == 2.71:1). The stem is also a bit long. I'll find a suitable replacement eventually. I may also switch to the levers that were original to the bike, as the Shimano levers, while comfortable, don't have quite enough leverage for the cantis. It's not a bit deal though, as I've got my legs as an "engine brake." :-)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theorem - you will eventually get into an accident...

I saved the title of this blog as a possible topic back in May. At that point it had been a long, long, time since I'd last been in a bike accident. I had known other people who'd been in accidents in the past couple years, but I had, perhaps miraculously, remained upright.

However, that changed last fall when I had not one, but two, mishaps on my bike while commuting. The first was largely my fault. While riding up Clark Street in Chicago (mid-October) I encountered a cab who was "stationed" several feet from the curb, completely blocking the bike lane. For some reason which I still don't understand I made the split-second decision to pass him on the right. Unfortunately, just as I was passing, the passenger opened her door. I strained my right AC joint when I went over the handlebars, but was not otherwise hurt. I missed a week of riding and swimming, but got on with my life.

On November 30 I crashed again. This time my chain decided it was mad at my hub and went on strike while I was accelerating out of the saddle after a stop. I hit nothing but the ground. Alas, my keys were in my back pocket and I landed squarely on what had been a round key ring. It is round no more. This took me a bit longer to recover from. I missed riding the entire month of December (partly from the crash, partly from the weather). I am only slowly getting back to the pool as well.


I ride a bike. Not as far or as often as some people, but frequently, and farther than most. I don't consider myself a very good rider, at least based on how frequently I get passed, but I do ride a fairly nice bike, a 2006 Trek Madone 5.2. Which explains the title of the blog.

These days most of my riding is actually commuting from my home in Evanston to work in the Chicago Loop, about 25 miles round trip. Last year I rode through November then petered out when the weather got crappy in December and didn't really pick back up until March. This year I hope to ride through the winter. To that end I recently bought a Schwinn Madison on eBay as a bad weather beater. I like it well enough, though I must admit my knees are getting a bit old for all the starting from a dead stop required in the city. I think I need to find a slightly smaller chainring and suffer with lack of "top end".

I've been riding "ten speed" bikes of one sort or another since I was in college in Los Angeles. I've had a number of different bikes, including a nice early American Masi back in the 70s (made shortly after they moved from Italy), and nowadays can be seen bopping around Evanston on a Specialized Crossroads fitted with an Xtracyle longtail. I kind of wish I had the blender attachment. That would be cool at the beach on a hot day. While I used to have a mountain bike, off-road riding never appealed to me. I love the road, and I really like urban riding (more on that in later posts).

I started riding in LA, slacked off while in graduate school in Iowa, returned to it when I moved back to Northern California after graduation, then in upstate New York. I do miss not having hills here in the Midwest, but I love to ride. I love to swim as well, but that's a topic for another day.